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MLK prof explores radiation, nuclear monitoring

Dwight Williams, an award-winning nuclear engineer and a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor, in his lab.
Dwight Williams, an award-winning nuclear engineer and a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor, in his lab.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Dwight Williams, an award-winning nuclear engineer and a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor, always had a passion for science. But it didn't completely click until he took physics during his senior year in high school.

"My love of science predates my abilities," Williams said with a laugh. "Had I not taken physics, I might have been an accountant. That was when the light bulb all of a sudden turned on."

A native of Washington, D.C., who has worked for the Department of Defense since 2000, Williams has come to MIT to share his work and research with MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE).

Williams spends half his time at MIT and the other half in Washington continuing his research, which is classified. Even though the commute is difficult, it is worth it to be part of MIT NSE, which Williams called "the best department in the country."

The timing of his visiting professorship is particularly appropriate, said Williams: His expertise is in environmental radioactivity and monitoring nuclear weapons, both topics that have made headlines in the past few months in relation to North Korea and Iran. "Of all the times in the world I could have been at MIT, this seems just perfect," Williams said.

Earlier this fall, he gave a talk on the issues and also developed a paper. "I was thrilled to draw some attention to the department," he said.  "My expertise really does have a home here."

In the spring, Williams will co-teach Principles of Nuclear Radiation Measurement and Protection. "The course is a lecture/lab that aims to familiarize students with varying types of radiation, radiation interactions with matter and radiation detection/protection," Williams said.  

Williams saw the opportunity at MIT as the chance to broaden an already blooming career. At the Pentagon, Williams serves as principal nuclear physicist in the Defense Intelligence Agency's Science and Technology Brain Trust within the Directorate for Measurements and Signatures Intelligence and Technical Collection.

He earned the B.S. and M.S. degrees in nuclear engineering from North Carolina State University and his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Maryland.

In February, Williams received one of nine awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for his work starting a nuclear lab in New Mexico. This was the first year the awards were presented. The award came with a $200,000 research grant, which Williams plans to use for unclassified research.

His research will focus on using acoustic waves to detect uranium and using DNA attached to the semiconductor chips that nuclear workers wear to detect radiation exposure. "The best thing about the research is that it is unclassified," said Williams, who is looking forward to university collaborations. Williams added that he is grateful to the many people who helped bring him to the Institute.

"This (the Martin Luther King Visiting Professorship) is a great program," Williams said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 2006 (download PDF).

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